Alfred Pek is a filmmaker, video journalist, director, and an aspiring storyteller, adventurer, and explorer of pluralism and intersections of identities. Having diverse life experiences in Indonesia and then Australia, it has inspired him to pursue the direction of telling stories that matter to broader social contexts to inspire actions and move human hearts.
Welcome to Scénema, Alfred!
Freedom Street is an emotionally charged documentary. It was enlightening. Exactly what prompted you to make this documentary?
In 2015, during the final years of my University Degree, I had the intention of creating video portfolios for my resume. The refugee issue in Australia was beginning to be taken very seriously around that time and I saw the opportunity to help the cause. Little did I know that I was about to have my world turned upside down. I started learning about the reality of refugees that arrived in Australia by boat and the horrific experiences that the government puts them through simply because they have no other way of seeking protection in the region. It was even more shocking for me personally as I later learned that almost all of these people have to transit through my previous home country Indonesia. Before, these refugees were only transiting across the archipelago, but subsequently, the Australian government has implemented systems that made refugees transiting through Indonesia to be stuck there indefinitely.
Through the years, I became more and more involved in refugee advocacy efforts, whilst also developing my filmmaking and journalism experiences. It all culminated in January 2018 as the issue of refugees in Indonesia was slowly becoming more of a discussion in the refugee advocacy scene in Australia. As someone with filmmaking experiences in the refugee advocacy scene, who also has the ability to bridge between the worlds of Australia and Indonesia, I can no longer ignore the moral duty to create something that will enlighten the entire situation.
What was your main goal while shooting the documentary?
My journey into the refugee advocacy has not only helped me uncover the atrocity that the Australian government has with these refugees, but also led me to discover the full context of this issue. Along the way, I realised that not many advocates and changemakers don’t have the full context and idea of the extent of this situation. Therefore, I made a decision to create a film that can be utilised as an educational tool for us not just to generate important conversations about this issue, but also to help expand the topic and reach out to others who are looking to learn about the situation and its full history.
Alfred, the film is long and it requires much patience and observation. How did you prepare yourself?
Coming back to my intention of creating this film as an educational tool for change, there were a lot of elements to take into consideration to ensure the quality of the stories and information delivered. There was a decision about what particular stories are appropriate in being told, building relationships with everyone, researching and surmising such a massive and complex topics, what nuances are to be highlighted, figuring out the climate of the refugee issue and the blindspot that exists (which contributed towards the film’s creative direction as a distinct content) as well as managing the film’s development considering the lack of help and film tools was available.
I tried to be as systematic as possible with my preparation. The first thing was preparing the research materials for facts and the stats of the situation before eventually settling on the experts that were featured in the film, which was by far the easiest to start. This is followed by studying the current climate of the topic, and since I have been inside the core of Australia’s refugee advocacy scene for years, it was also quite manageable to observe. The difficult part was to establish trust and relationships with the refugees (the film stars themselves) and figuring out how to approach this in a way where they will not feel exploited. And after that, figuring out the team to work with. Considering the lack of popularity the issue is within the Australian public, it was very difficult to attract funding, which translates to challenges in finding a team to work with as well as better equipment. For the longest time, I had to rely on the goodwill of people, my own sole funding and the limited equipment that I have in order to proceed with the filming progress. These bottlenecks were eventually overcome through a secondary employment I gained for some time.
But perhaps the most challenging preparation aspect was confronting the stories and the realities with my very own eyes. When it’s not just one, but two of your home countries that are contributing to these atrocities, and on top of that, processing all the personal stories on the ground has a huge impact on my psyche. There’s just some things you cannot prepare for. Ultimately the rest of my film journey is about balancing all of these things, as well as the journey of healing from the secondary trauma that I experienced.
Is there any scene that you found particularly disturbing or moving? What was it about that scene that was especially compelling for you?
The gap that I noticed in this topic are the stories of the stateless people and refugee women stories in transit. So when Azizah came into the picture, I did not realise the extent of just how much worse the experience could be for a stateless refugee woman could be. Not only she was shunned from her own community for speaking up her mind and is ambitious, but he also has to confront and overcome all the typical women challenges of sexual exploitations, family abuse, and in her particular circumstance, the negligence she experienced from her fractured family that she barely has. One could say she is the definition of what a destitute woman is in this world.
There wasn’t a specific scene, but rather her entire segment where she tells all of these stories of her journey honestly broke me down and it really took me a long time to process all this and heal. Her amazing courage, hope, and stubbornness at times was beyond admirable, I was really grateful to have an opportunity to help highlight some of the most invisible stories in this world, but also to help empower and provide extra support for her in the subsequent years.
How would you define the term refugee?
I would define the term refugee as close to the conventional definition of what a refugee is. A refugee is a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster. But to add to that in relation to this film, those who are most persecuted tend to be the ones that are most likely to not have any form of documents whatsoever. Rendering these people to be most invisible in this world system.
Settling in a totally different country has both its pros and cons. How would you like to assess your own scenario?
Myself and my family’s migration into Australia from Indonesia was a very interesting journey of integration. As a minority from Indonesia, who not only overcame the experience of poverty, discriminations and hardships, it was definitely a big blessing to be able to come to Australia. The biggest con was the sacrifice of leaving the people we trust and rely on, and my mother sacrificed her happiness and self worth in order to provide for us by working manual jobs once again. I had the privilege of moving here during the age of middle school/high school where I wasn’t yet expected to contribute, but I helped in other ways such as translations and explaining things for her due to the language barrier.
But as sad as it is to leave our home country, we had so many pros where our welfare is guaranteed by the government, great work life balance, cleaner and healthier environment, and plenty of opportunities to pursue our passion and learn about the world. There’s not many places in the world that can truly afford these experiences and we are forever grateful for this opportunity, otherwise I would not be able to have the chance to conceive about this film in the first place.
You have named the documentary Freedom Street. What is your idea of true freedom?
My idea of true freedom is the ability to fully exert our agency as human beings. The idea where we’re able to fully realise our potential as entities with all the opportunities provided, as well as being free from all sorts of discriminations, persecutions and any negative barriers that would impede upon our development, therefore it goes without saying that one’s freedom should not at the expense and detriment of others.
Alfred, how was the shooting/filming process upon reflection?
The experience of the film shoot process was some of the most interesting I’ve had. Personally, the amount of academic and journal research, and then proceeding to interview the experts on the issue makes it more of a university assignment than your typical documentary journalism film. This was contrasted by the full freedom and creative experience I had in such a unique setting. In my experience, filming a refugee in transit in an atypical country that is my home country is something that I could never have conceived!
Furthermore, the limited cameras, audio setup, all the technical challenges that come with the limitation and the very limited finances has initially massively challenged my artistic vision for this film. That being said, I had to make use of what I could at that time, and it yielded a very interesting and raw feel to the experience of the film itself. Thankfully, during the second year of filming, once I was in a better financial position and more experience of filming on the ground, I was able to achieve most of my vision, and finally it was able to complement all the different facet the film provides.
What has this documentary taught you?
This documentary has taught me so many things. Professionally, there were a lot of firsts as this was my very first feature film ever. It taught me a lot about the extent of producing feature sized projects, managing complex logistics of travelling while filming, managing expectations between the crew, the subjects, and myself, as well as learning the business, marketing, and building relationships with the audience, distributions and the festival circuits.
Personally, the film has taught me about trauma, the extent of the world’s injustice, the privilege that we have as global citizens, the idea of literally belonging nowhere, and the idea where even during the darkest moments, there can be hope and reason that could prevail if we work hard towards them. But ultimately, to make this all work, it has to be a collective effort towards change, and what is better than creating an educational film that fully contextualises this entire situation.
Which stories of struggle appealed to you the most?
Personally, I don’t typically lean into the stories lately due to the fact that I had been quite overwhelmed by my own journey with this film. I am presently enduring the struggle myself. I do not enjoy the experience of struggles and any reminders of it. But if I had to choose from the film, the story of Azizah appealed to my personal spirit the most. This is because I have a few things that I deeply relate with her plight. As a person with a lot of intersections of identities, I fully resonate with her drive to overcome many facets of prejudices and disbelief. Also, her courage and strength in some ways have helped me heal and make sense of everything. Ultimately, it gave me the final strength to push on and finish this film as well as the drive for me to really fulfill my purpose of creating this powerful film.